The Bucktails: The Famous Rifle Regiment of Pennsylvania. Part 1

Featured in the Grand Army Scout and Soldiers Mail, January 6, 1883

While there were many regiments in the army that won particular fame by their deeds, it will, perhaps, be admitted by all, that no regiment in either army was better known than “The Bucktails.” Few knew of the 42d Pennsylvania Regiment, of the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves, of the Kane rifles, all of which this renowned regiment was, but every soldier knew of the Bucktails. They were not sharpshooters with telescoped rifles, as is sometimes supposed, but they were skilled marksmen, carrying the rifles they had carried in the woods of their native State. Their aim was so accurate and their fire so deadly, that they became a terror to the enemyand ‘probably no regiment was so much dreaded as the Bucktails; their presence always created nervousness and sometimes panic in the ranks of those exposed to their fire.

On the 13th of April, 1861, Thomas L. Kane, brother of Dr. Kane, the famous Arctic explorer, obtained permission from Governor Curtin to raise a company of riflemen from Forest, McKean and Elk counties. On the 24th of April, a hundred men assembled at the rafting place on the Sinnemahoning, where they at once commenced constructing their transports. Two days later they embarked, three hundred and fifteen strongupon three rafts, and with a green hickory pole, surmounted by a buck’s tail, for a flag-staff, the stars and stripes flying, with martial strains of music they moved toward the camp of rendezvous at Harrisburg. They were all hardy men from the forest region, accustomed to the use or the rifle from boyhood, and, to live in the woods for months at a time without shelter, subsisting on game brought down by their rifles., They were quick of perception, and understood every snap of a twig or the rustle of a leaf, There was not a man among them who would not have, considered it a disgrace not to be able, to shoot a squirrel, off hand, from the top of the highest tree, or a running deer at the distance of four or five hundred yards.

They assembled at the rendezvous clad in red shirts, and wearing in their hats bucktails, and each carrying his trusty rifle. As no order had been issued by the Governor for marching it was found at headquarters that a limited number would be accepted.  A telegram was dispatched directing them to turn back upon  their arrival at Lock Haven, but they refused to do this, and in due time arrived at Harrisburg and saluted  the city with  volley from their rifles.

They at once became known as the “Bucktails”. Authority  was given to muster them into the service as the 17th (three months) Regiment, with Thomas L. Kane as colonel. But a 17th Regiment had already been organized and mustered into service in Philadelphia, and a difficulty arising as to the acceptance of so large a number from a district containing only a small population, the organization was not consummated.   Col. Kane declining his commission was mustered into service on the 13th or May, as a private.

In  the meantime, other companies, had been recruited and had assembled in camps with like expectations, and were similarly disappointed. Roy Stone, a citizen of Warren county, had recruited, in April, a company of men similar in occupation and experience to those led by Kane. They, bore their own rifles and dwelt, principally, upon the headwaters of the Allegheny River. They were encamped some time at the. court-house in Warren, and were fed by the citizens.  Governor Curtin, having no authority to provide for them, advised them to disband. Unwilling to-do this, and tired of inactivity, they agreed, by, advice of their captain to move down the Allegheny upon flat-boats to Pittsburgh thence to join Gen. McClellan in West Virginia, as an independent corps of sharpshooters. They were five days in making the run, being entertained at the towns along the river and receiving many recruits along the way. At Pittsburgh they were the guests of the city, and here Capt. Stone was summoned by Governor Curtin to Harrisburg, where the company was  assigned to the Reserve Corps. Another company was recruited in Chester county, one in Perry, one in Clearfield, one in Carbon, and two in Tioga, all of men of the same character and of the same skill as riflemen.

After some delay, the officers received permission to effect a regimental organization, and did so by electing Thos. L. Kane colonel, Chas. J. Biddle lieut.-colonel and Roy Stone, major. Col. Kane received his commission as .colonel, but though the unanimous .choice of his regiment, never having had any military experience, be unselfishly resigned as colonel, requesting that Lieut-Col. Biddle, an experienced officer, should receive the colonelcy. The request was acceded to at his solicitation, he becoming lieutenant-colonel, and, by resolution of the officers, the name of the regiment was changed to the Kane Rifle regiment in honor of his  magnanimous and patriotic action. The name was approved by general orders and made a record in the War Department; but though this was the official designation the name  of  Bucktail was the one by, which it was to be known throughout the army, and in fact throughout the world wherever a knowledge of our war exists. Each man wore a bucktail in his cap all through the service.

On June 21st, the regiment, with the 5th reserves, Col. Simmons, and Barr’s battery, were ordered to Cumberland, Md. It moved to Hopewell by rail,and then marched twenty-three miles to Bradford Springs, this being, its first march. The next day it marched forty miles, to the State line, where it established a camp, and remained there until July 7th, when it marched  to Cumberland.

On July 12th, a scouting party, of sixty men, under Col. Kane, having crossed into Virginia as far as New Creek village, was surrounded by McDonald’s rebel cavalry. After a sharp skirmish the enemy was defeated and routed, with a loss or ten killed  and about thirty wounded;  the Bucktails having suffered no loss by reason of the manner in which the command was handled. Col. Biddle, coming up with the regiment to the relief of the  scouting party, sent Col. Kane with two hundred men to follow McDonald’s forces. He overtook them at Ridgeville nine miles from New Creek, and, after a severe skirmish, got possession of the village and held it until Col. Biddle arrived, when the advanced position was held until July 27th.  On August 1st it moved to Harper’s Ferry, where it was temporarily assigned to a brigade composed of the 28th New York, 2d Massachusetts, 12th Massachusetts and 2d United States Cavalry, under command of Gen. George H. Thomas. In this command it served in all its marches until October, when it was  ordered to Tennallytown and joined the Pennsylvania reserve corps, to which it properly belonged.   It was he had been elected from Philadelphia. December, 20th, the regiment, under Lt. Col. Kane, marched with Ord’s brigade to Dranesville, where the enemy were met in force. At noon a large body of the enemy advanced upon the Centreville road. The Bucktails were posted in support of a battery, and during the artillery duel the infantry lay upon their arms. Col. Kane, when the cannonade had slackened, discovered a body of the enemy passing through an opening in the woods, in an effort to turn our flank. He sent a detachment toward an outlying house, where they kept up a deadly fire upon the advancing force of three regiments and a section of artillery. Lying upon the ground to load, they would rise and take deliberate aim in firing, and then fall to the ground to load. Their fire was so deadly, that, the enemy commenced to fall back, and as the Bucktails advanced in pursuit a, ball crushed through the roof of the mouth of Col. Kane, but he continued to follow with his men. The enemy fled in confusion, leaving upon the field their dead and wounded, and barely saving one piece   of their artillery, which would have been captured but for the orders of Gen. Ord forbidding, a farther advance. The loss to the; regiment was ten killed and two officers and twenty-six men wounded.

In January,Capt. McNeil, of Co. D was elected colonel, Lieut.Col. Kane. being in the hospital with his severe wound. Upon his recovery, Col. Kane addressed Gen. McClellan with reference to a new skirmish drill, and his system was received with such favor that, by, direction of Gen, McClellan, four companies of the regiment were detailed to be specially drilled by Col. Kane, according to his system.

In March the campaign opened, and ten days of severe weather, without shelter, were experienced in the march to Manassas and return to Alexandria. The Bucktails were now assigned to the 1st Brigade, commanded by Gen. Reynolds, and the division of Pennsylvania Reserves was attached to the 1st Corps, commanded by Gen. McDowell. Col. Kane, with his four companies, was ordered to report to Gen. Bayard, commanding a brigade of cavalry. In the advance of McDowell, beyond the Rappahannock, to the assistance of McClellan around Richmond, Bayard’s brigade in the advance had reached within six miles of’ Hanover Court-house, when it was recalled and ordered to the support of Fremont in the Shenandoah Valley.

The service of Kane’s battalion in this campaign was remarkably brilliant.  For twelve days they were constantly on the march through woods and over mountain creeks, marching an average of thirty miles a day being without shelter or blankets and receiving in the twelve days but two days of regular rations.

During seven days of this time they were constantly engaged with the enemy, fighting according to their peculiar tactics.  On June 6th, near Harrisonburg, the 1st New Jersey cavalry ran into an ambush, and were compelled to fall back, leaving their wounded on the field. Kane’s battalion, now reduced to a little over 100 men, volunteered, and in fact, asked permission, to rescue the wounded.  Receiving permission to advance, these dare-devil riflemen darted into the dense woods, and at once ran against a rebel regiment.  The Bucktails opened their deadly fire, and the enemy in front broke before it, but other regiments closed in on them, and soon the gallant little band of one hundred was fighting the 1st Maryland, 44th and 58th Virginia and a Louisiana regiment, under the command of Turner Ashby, with General Ewell present.  The 58th Virginia was protected by the crest of a hill, and when the Bucktails were about to advance, Private Kelly said he would draw their fire, and stepping from behind a tree, received, without flinching, a volley, falling dead, pierced by more than a dozen balls.  The Bucktails, stationed behind trees, continued to fight against such terrible odds and refused to surrender.  Col. Kane, severely wounded in the leg, leaned against a tree and gave commands.  Each of the riflemen made every shot tell.  One of the regiments of the enemy began to break before the deadly fire, when an officer stepped in front to rally them and lead them on. . . . the regiment, killed at Gettysburg, refused to leave his commander, and with him was captured.  The enemy in recognition of the courage of the men they had been fighting, offered them their parole, but they refused to accept it.  So well did the command obey the order to scatter, and so well did their tactics save them, that not a single unwounded prisoner was taken.  But there were fifty-two killed and wounded, just one-half the little battalion.  The enemy admitted a loss of nearly 600 from the rifles of the Bucktails.

At Cross Keys, June 8th  what was left of Kane’s battalion was in the front line, and when Fremont  fell back it was thought they had been captured, but they fought their way out, bringing with them the gun they  had been ordered to support. Col. Pilsen, chief of artillery, shook each man by the hand and thanked them for saving his battery. Gen. Fremont gave them rations from his own headquarter. The battalion of five companies still remained Fremont’s corps now commanded by Siegel, and was next engaged at Cedar Mountain. On August 19th, Col. Kane, relieved from captivity, joined them, though still using a crutch.

He immediately issued an order that each man should carry not less that one hundred rounds of ball cartridges, forty, in his cartridge-box and the, remainder in his haversack. On August 22d, Stuart, in his famous ride broke through the picket and charged over the camp of the Bucktails near Catlett’s Station.

Col. Kane rallied his men in a wood adjoining, sending, a few picked men to reconnoiter. They returned with the word that  the enemy was in force  but crowded and in disorder, and was forming in an open space above. Kane led his men quietly into the Manassas road and opened a fire almost in the face of the enemy, emptying many saddles and sending the horses galloping- around in wild fright. A stampede ensued, and the enemy fled for a mile, when it was stopped in the midst of McDowell’s train which it commenced to plunder. Kane again approached in the dark and charged with his little band sending  the enemy fleeing in confusion from what they believed to be a large force, the Bucktails deceiving them by their tactics and splendid discipline and training.

At Second Bull Run, Kane, not being under orders, endeavored to check the panic at the bridge over Cub Run, but his thinly-deployed line was swept away,. He then pressed forward with his little band until he met a Lieutenant with four small howitzers, which he turned back and formed a line at Bull Run bridge being joined  by Captain Matthews, with a rifled gun, and by, Captain Thompson and Lieutenant Twitchell, each with a brass howitzer. This line helped to diminish the haste and confusion of the retreat. This position was held until the morning of August 31st, when Colonel Kane received orders to destroy the bridge.

In recognition of his great gallantry, Lieut.-Col. Kane was, on the 7th of September, commissioned a brigadier-general, and the four companies which he commanded rejoined the other six amid loud cheers from the men of both commands.

In our next issue, we will recount the services of the other companies while on the Peninsula, and then of the united regiment until the close of the war.1

  1. Grand Army Scout and Soldiers Mail, January 6, 1883